Sure, you've probably had enough of A&E Top 10 lists for this year, but given that I was City Weekly's music editor for a good three-fourths of 2011, I reserve the right to chime in on my favorite listens of the year.
As always, these are simply the albums that made their way into heavy rotation at my house, in my car and on my work computer—the music that obviously struck a chord with me, one way or another. You can check out current CW music editor Austen Diamond's 2011 Top 10 here, and Gavin Sheehan's fave local releases here.
Here's my list. Enjoy!
WILD FLAG, Wild Flag
Sure, I was predisposed to adore this band since two-thirds of old faves Sleater-Kinney make up half of this indie-rock quartet (damn, that’s a lot of fractions for a music dork to keep up with -- sorry). And while the presence of powerhouse drummer Janet Weiss and uber-talented guitar goddess Carrie Brownstein is certainly vital to Wild Flag, their chemistry with singer/guitarist Mary Timony (Helium) and keyboardist Rebecca Cole is what made this my go-to disc of choice since it arrived in September. Catchy-as-hell songcraft, singalong choruses and an undeniable energy coalesce into a classic indie-pop collection that I’ll listen to for years, guaranteed. Let the good times toll, as the ladies say.
JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT, Here We Rest
Anyone who listened to Isbell’s early songwriting via his five years in Drive-By Truckers knows the guy is an ace, both as a lyricist and guitar player. On this, his third full-length album since leaving the Truckers in his rearview, Isbell showcases a maturing sound that incorporates flourishes of acoustic guitars, organs, horns and fiddles that fit along nicely next to the familiar electric roar of his brand of Southern rawk. If you can listen to “Codeine” and not fall in love with Isbell, I don’t want to know you.
THE DECEMBERISTS, The King is Dead
Simple is good, even when it comes to the ornately lyrical Colin Meloy and his merry band of Portland multi-instrumentalists. And as much as I’ve loved pretty much everything the band has done through the years, the focused, straightforward songs filling The King is Dead offer The Decemberists’ most cohesive collection to date. Major assists from R.E.M. jangle-master Peter Buck and Gillian Welch’s exquisite voice don’t hurt, either.
THE HEAD AND THE HEART, The Head and the Heart
The Seattle buzz band got under my skin via their Kilby Court show in the spring, and their self-titled set of insistent folk-pop burrowed into my brain for months afterward. Songs like “Cats and Dogs” and “Ghosts” showcase a dramatic melodic sense and guy/girl harmonizing that I’ve loved forever. Can’t wait to hear what the band comes up with for a second album.
THE CIVIL WARS, Barton Hollow
On paper, this duo sounds like an NPR-designed slice of adult-contemporary romanti-folk. One chance to see John Paul White and Joy Williams perform their songs together, though, and you’ll dismiss such jaded skepticism and get lost in their interweaving voices and stellar songwriting on songs like the title track and “Poison & Wine.” Amazing what two voices and one guitar can deliver in The Civil Wars’ hands.
This British rock crew’s debut arrived on the Fat Possum label, but if you’re thinking that makes them another rootsy, blues-based band, forget about it. Yuck is clearly steeped in early-'90s guitar rock ala Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. Their self-titled debut is full of tasty distortion, hooks-a-plenty and (gasp!) actual guitar solos.
THE JAYHAWKS, Mockingbird Time
The band’s eighth studio album is the first to feature the two long-time leaders of the band—Gary Louris and Mark Olson—since 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, and the reunion proved well worth waiting for. With all the songs co-written by Louris and Olson, the band delivered comfortable country-rock full of their noteworthy harmonizing, like “Closer to Your Side” and “Stand Out in the Rain,” that holds up to any of their classic material.
THE CARS, Move Like This
I’ll cop to being a complete Cars geek, but this pick is no simple journey into nostalgia. It’s an incredibly strong collection that holds up to anything in The Cars’ vast catalog of pop-rock classics like Candy-O and Heartbeat City. Dozens of young bands owe these guys a huge debt, and few of them can match songs like “Blue Tip” and “Sad Song” from Move Like This.
TOM WAITS, Bad As Me
Waits only seems like he’s a 100 years old, thanks to that gravelly croak and a predilection for sounds that reach back a good century or so. Bad As Me is simply bad-ass, Waits’ best since 1999’s Mule Variations and a great listen from top to bottom thanks to songs like “Raised Right Men” and “Satisfied.”
WYE OAK, Civilian
This Baltimore duo’s third full-length mesmerized me through the spring, especially after getting the chance to see them a couple times live at SXSW in March. Singer Jenn Wasner has a worthy wail, and there’s plenty of grit to go along with dreamy soundscapes like “The Altar” on this set. “Holy Holy” is a straight up distortion-rock wonder, and the title track adds gospel and dusty country touches to their sound. For two people, Wye Oak create a mighty sound, one you should catch up to if you haven’t heard it.
10 more, for luck: Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts; Fucked Up, David Comes to Life; Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Mirror Traffic; Tuneyards, WhoKill; Wilco, The Real Love; The Devil Whale, Teeth; R.E.M. Collapse Into Now; Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo; My Morning Jacket, Circuital; Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest